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The Writing Process

Elaborate on your thoughts
Draft ideas into paragraphs
Inflect the tone based on the audience
Technology use to optimize editing

Like all good students, you have completed your assignment by addressing the topic, reading it over a few times, and turning it in on time. You used a few outside sources to support your thoughts and added a reference page. With confidence, you await your grade, which in your mind should be an A. When your assignment is returned, disappointment and frustration erode your confidence and self-perception about your ability to achieve at the graduate level. What went wrong? Why didn’t you get an A?

The assignment may have been marked with extensive explanations for point or grade reductions. Was your grade lowered due to poor writing? If so, please keep reading. Many students drop out of school, not because they lack critical thinking skills, but because of their inability to express thoughts at the level that is required for college coursework. Do you have a plan of action to solve the issues with your writing?

Writing is a sloppy process. Although students today use the computer more often than pen and paper, the thought processes and steps used to create a well-written paper are the same. Three steps are essential to writing a quality college paper: free writing, drafting, and editing. These steps are explained below.

Free Writing
During this stage of writing, ideas related to the topic are noted in a computer document, on a piece of paper, a note pad, or even a dinner napkin! The organization of thoughts, spelling, conventions of writing, and formatting are not important. Gathering information and ideas to create a loose framework for your paper is the main focus of this writing stage. Depending on the type of paper, free writing can take a few hours (a weekly assignment), weeks (a course project), or months (a thesis or dissertation). Explore all angles of the assigned topic by reading different types of sources. Books, journals, and websites are a good place to begin. Once you have a working knowledge of the topic and a few sources to support your writing and/or argument, then you are ready to move to the next step.

Organization is the focus of writing a first draft. Organize the pieces of information like pieces of a puzzle–by themes, positions taken, authors, historical timeline, or in chronological order. Begin to format your thoughts into paragraphs. The conventions of writing are now important.

What are the writing conventions? Spelling and grammar may not perfect at this point; however, complete sentences and paragraphs should be in place. The formatting of your paper depends on your assignment, your school requirements, and your instructor. Formatting includes spacing, margins, indents, reference and title pages, headers, in-text citations, and a table of contents. The addition of a table of contents depends on the assignment requirements and the audience. Ask your instructor for specific guidelines.

The last step is editing, which is a process usually overlooked by students. Skipping this step may be tempting given your busy work, school, family, and social obligations. The last thing your instructor wants to read is another paper with writing errors. What can you do to improve your editing skills and improve your grades on written assignments? Here are a few editing strategies that work:

Print out your draft. Having the paper in a different medium makes certain errors easier to see and correct. This strategy saves time, as you can carry the paper version with you and edit it when time allows.

Wait a day or more to look at the paper again. Rested eyes and a fresh perspective help catch grammatical, spelling, and possibly stray thought errors. Undoubtedly, you have already spell checked your assignment; however, this process does not catch all errors. Common errors include the words too and to, there and their, its and it’s, ad and add, aide and aid and whose and who’s.

Read your paper aloud. Writing and reading use different parts of the brain. When reading silently, the brain may automatically “fix” errors it encounters. Reading aloud requires the visual and speech portions of the brain to work together; therefore, the brain cannot automatically “fix” the errors. The errors become apparent and “fixable.”

Optimize your computer settings for maximum writing results. If you are using MS Word, follow these steps:

For Microsoft® Word 2003 users:
1. Go to Tools. This is located at the top of the page on the task bar.
2. Click Tools. Click Options. A new window displays.
3. Click the Spell and Grammar tab.
4. On the right side of the screen you see a dropdown menu. Click Grammar and Style.
5. In the Settings box, located right under the dropdown menu, select Always, Inside, and 1.
6. Ensure that all the boxes on the left are checked.
7. Save your changes.

For Microsoft® Word 2007 users:
Go to the round circle in the upper left with the colored squares. Click the circle.
a. At the bottom, click Word Options. Click Proofing.
b. Under “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word, use the dropdown box to select Grammar & Style.
c. Click Settings.
d. From the dropdown menus, select Always, Inside, and 1.
e. Ensure that all the boxes on the left are checked.
f. Click OK. Click OK again.

Now, every time you spell check your papers, the program will alert you to errors in spelling (red), grammar (green), style (green), provide a possible spelling alternative (blue in MS Word 2007). Subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, wordiness, colloquialisms, split infinitives, active and passive voices, and spacing between sentences are among the errors that will be underlined.

The program will also offer suggestions to correct these issues. Please do not ignore the squiggly lines under words and sentences. Right-click over a word or sentence underlined with green, red, or blue lines. Suggested corrections will appear. You have the option to correct the error using the suggestion or to ignore the suggested correction. However, do not assume the suggestions offered are always correct. Remember, this is only a computer program. Use all your strategies and the quality of your writing will improve.

For Mac/Apple users:
Within the “Pages” program, click File.
Under File the menu, click the Preferences menu.
Set up your grammar and spell-check for your assignments.

Writing is a complex process that requires multiple drafts to achieve a finished, polished product. Prewriting is the first step of the writing process. During this process, ideas related to your topic are explored, noted, and organized. Let’s look at the final project for your current course. What is the topic? What are your first thoughts about the topic? Brainstorm ideas. What do you already know about the topic? What are the requirements of the final project? Think about your experiences and discuss the topic with your classmates. Ideas come from a variety of sources

Read scholarly sources from the online library. Understanding the difference between acceptable and unacceptable source material is important in graduate-level work.
Assess multiple perspectives related to your topic, collect facts, and summarize passages. Because people learn differently, how you make notes at this point in the process is not important, but taking relevant notes is. Do you keep a file on your computer desktop or are you a paper and pencil person? Regardless of the method, noting ideas for possible future use is important. Using your course assignment and the grading criteria as a guide, focus your collection of ideas on those that meet the assignment criteria.

Noting Ideas
Let’s look at possible strategies for noting ideas—journals, mind maps, graphic organizers, and outlines. Journaling does not have to be fancy; it can be online or in paper format. Mind maps, like spokes in a wheel, help you visualize ideas categorically. Many types of graphic organizers are available through a simple web search. Choose one that suits your learning style. Outlines are an effective way to begin the organization process.

Organizing Ideas
Once your ideas are noted, revisit your topic, focus your ideas, and begin to organize the presentation of your ideas. At this point, do not worry about grammar and punctuation. Work with your ideas to establish a focused flow.


Writing Topic Sentences and a First Draft
After you complete the planning and prewriting steps, the next step in the writing process is to create a first draft of your paper or essay. It is important to note that drafting begins with a first draft, and a first draft is rarely a finished product. The idea of writing the draft is to write down many ideas quickly, referring to the information that was gathered and is available in your outline or however you organized your material. The draft should be written without focusing on spelling or grammar. To keep your writing flowing, you may choose to skip from topic to topic. In fact, you may wish to write each paragraph on a separate sheet of paper as this will allow you to easily manage your paragraph sequence. You can create transitions and proper paragraph sequencing later.

It is helpful to have a good outline or other form of organization to use as a pattern as you move from your outline point to a paragraph. Do not begin your first draft by writing your introduction. Save the introduction until you have completed your paper so that you can be certain of what you will be introducing. Do not worry about writing style as you will be polishing your work in the revision stage.

Effective writing requires that each paragraph must include enough details to fully support the point you are making. You make your point in your topic sentence. Your topic sentence includes two parts–the actual topic, and the words that express your opinion or attitude about the topic. For example, “In the 21st century, mobile, nontraditional learners abound at our institutions of higher learning” (Andrews & Davis, 2015, Abstract).

The main topic of this sentence is “nontraditional learners,” and my opinion is that they “abound at our institutions of learning.” Now I can go on to state the “who, what, when, where, and why” by adding the evidence gathered.

Improving Your Writing
After speaking, writing is our most important means of communication. There are several effective ways to improve your writing. First, there is a strong connection between reading and writing, and avid reading improves your spelling and grammar skills. You should increase your reading however possible. This includes reading for pleasure—books, magazines, newspapers, and even emails and blogs. Use the Internet and go into chat rooms and read articles that are of special interest to you. Even reading emails counts, as well as subtitles in movies!

The second thing you must do to improve your writing is to practice as much as possible. To avoid practicing incorrect usage, we recommend that you complete a self-assessment to determine your writing strengths and weaknesses. In this way you can determine which of your specific skills need improvement. You can practice these skills in isolation and later incorporate your improved skills into your writing. The APA Publication Manual provides a myriad of examples for each writing skill. Complete a careful review of all examples.

Read aloud anything that you write. Does your writing sound the way you want it to? If you stumble while reading your own written words, then check your grammar, spelling, and sentence structure.

A Closer Look
Below are some common errors found in student papers. Do you see your errors?
• Misspelled words
• Split infinitives: “to effectively write”
• Dangling modifiers: “After separating the participants into groups, Group A was tested” (APA, 2010, p. 87).
• Word confusion: there/their, your/you’re, hour/our, passed/past
•subject-verb agreement: “They was”; “the documentation were”
• Starting sentences with the four T’s when not followed by a noun: this, that, these, and those.

Resources for You
Royal, B. (2004). The little red writing book: 20 powerful principles of structure, style & readability. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.
Rozakis, L.E. (2003). The complete idiot’s guide: Grammar and style (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Alpha books.
Strunk, W., & White, E.B. (2000). The elements of style (4th ed.). New York, NY: Longman.


Critiquing, Proofreading, and Editing

Critiquing colleagues’ documents is a valuable skill that will assist them when revising their work and assist you in developing a more critical lens through which to view your own work. In your course you might perform several critiques, and it’s important to understand the benefits and the responsibilities that require your full participation in this part of your work.

One advantage built into this process is that you are allowing time to let your work sit so you can review it with fresh eyes before you submit the final version. When it comes time to submit papers or assignments to your professors, you want the writing to be as clear and as persuasive as possible so that the feedback you get from your professors addresses the key points of your main topic rather than your puzzling writing, weak arguments, or poor research skills.

Learning to look at work critically is a skill that can be learned, and working through a good critique process can help you hone those skills. As you receive feedback from others, you can begin to identify gaps in your own work, see how various readers respond to your work, and adopt some of the sensitivities that these readers bring to bear. This exercise gives you a better sense of the issues your readers may have with your topic and helps you anticipate any modifications they may suggest. If you are working on a long-term project like a dissertation, by the end you will be able to distinguish the types of responses you are likely to get from your different committee members, and you will be able to address some of these issues as you draft and revise, correcting errors before they even see them. Others can point to confusing phrasing or gaps in your logic merely because they are reading what you actually wrote and not what you intended to write.

Proofreading is a skill developed with practice over time. Have you ever wondered why you do not “see” your own errors? Your brain automatically fixes errors as you are reading your own work, which makes editing difficult. What can you do? Proofread aloud, print your document, start from the end and read sections out of order, proofread again after your eyes have had a break, and ask a friend to proofread for you.

There are two phases to revising your work. We can label them the big picture and the small picture. Be sure you have performed all your big picture revisions before doing the small picture, or fine tuning. It is important for you to perform both parts of the revision process.

Big-picture items include removing irrelevant items, adding more information where needed, reordering for greater effect, and refocusing your argument for improved clarity. It may be hard to cut some items, especially since you found the information after investing significant time at the library and then worked to incorporate it into your paper, but if it’s not relevant, cut it. Similarly, revisiting the research library after you have already drafted your paper is not an easy task. APA formatting rules help shape your document’s organization somewhat, but you must still focus on the presentation of the information. Although these steps may not be easy, if they are needed they will be worth the effort.

After completing the big-picture edit, you can proceed with the small picture edit. It’s essential to do this with a personalized plan by reading through the paper once with an eye towards each issue. For example, all research papers benefit from a careful check of the APA citations. Even this task can be broken down into steps from checking all your quotation marks to checking your punctuation in your citations and on your References page.

Common grammatical errors include (a) sentence fragments, (b) subject-verb agreement, (c) pronoun agreement, (d) word confusion, and (e) tense agreement. Based on your personal grammar and style concerns, you should develop a process that involves several passes through your own work. Some may be common, such as editing to cut clutter, but some may be more specific to you, like checking for certain words you often confuse.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2001). The writing process. Retrieved from

Purdue University. (2006). Online writing lab. Retrieved from

Convincing Your Reader/Audience

Many writing guides and introductions in English composition textbooks advise you to consider your audience first when preparing to write.  That will help you decide what your purpose is in writing and how to go about it.  Academic writing is different from most other kinds of writing and has its own rules and conventions.  The audience to whom you are writing and the manner in which you will address this person/people must be understood.

Who Is Your Audience

You may think that the logical audience for your written assignments is your instructor, but that will lead to problems with what you include.  If you think of the audience for your writing as being an educated person (not an expert in your field of study) who does not know the assignment requirements and has not read what you have read in preparation for your writing assignment, you are more likely to include the appropriate background information and level of detail.  You need to supply this reader/audience with sufficient background to understand the issue you are exploring, why it is significant, and to whom it is significant.  You will supply enough detail to justify the claims you are making about the issue without relying on an expert’s understanding of the issue.  You might think of this educated non-expert as the Writing Studio consultant who will read and review your document.

Convincing Your Audience

Most academic writing at the graduate level will involve making a cogent argument for or against something.  You must maintain your credibility by presenting yourself as knowledgeable in the subject matter and educated enough to write correctly and convincingly.  The following are some things to consider.

You are not writing to a friend or family member, so avoid slang.  Err on the side of being formal rather than informal.  Your reader is an educated colleague and expects to be addressed and convinced like one.  You must come across as equally educated, well informed concerning the issue you are presenting, and cognizant of academic writing conventions.

Avoid using vague, general, and non-specific terms.  If you were attempting to convince to buy a house, you would not describe it as “nice” or “good”.  You would present factual information: how many square feet, how many bedrooms, which area of town, yearly taxes, prices of other homes in the neighborhood, school district, etc.  The audience for your writing is interested in the facts to assess your argument and wants to get to them without a lot of meaningless verbiage.  Facts are convincing, not “nice” adjectives and irrelevant information.

Do not use second person pronouns (you, your, yourself, yourselves).  For example, do not state “You should consider the consequences of your actions” when you mean “Anyone/One/A teacher/A businessperson/A nurse in this situation should consider the consequences of this action.”. Use the specific noun that is appropriate and follow it with the correct third person pronouns.  It is almost never necessary to address your audience directly by using a second person pronoun.

Do not use first person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, myself, ourselves) unless the writing assignment calls for personal experience.  Your audience is not interested in your personal opinions.  You are making an argument based on facts and/or experts’ opinions.  If an assignment calls for your expertise, it will be so stated.

Do not repeat words or phrases.  For example, do not make every relationship between multiple statements “However”, “Furthermore”, or “Therefore””  “However” indicates a contrast between the previous and subsequent statements; “Furthermore” indicates an additional (preferably supportive) statement; “Therefore” indicates a logical conclusion that is based on the previous statement.  Do not repeat a phrase like “On the other hand” as a transition.  Your audience will assume you have a limited vocabulary or limited ability to convey subtle distinctions.

Always have a dictionary (and possibly a thesaurus) within reach.  These tools are primarily to help you remember (and spell) words you are familiar with.  A dictionary with good usage notes is most helpful.  However, do not use these tools to locate possible synonyms.  Do not use a word unless you know exactly what it means—denotation and connotations.  Using an inappropriate word or a word with inappropriate connotations will diminish your reader’s confidence in your argument.

Obviously, the same can be said when your reader encounters a misspelled word.  Always check your spelling.  That is one reason to have the dictionary within reach.  This is equally important for words that may or may not be hyphenated.  Hyphens are frequently associated with words that are in transition in the language, so it is very difficult to predict when they occur.  Use a recently published dictionary to check on the current form of such words.  Always run a spelling and grammar checker.  Current versions are not particularly accurate, but they will find many errors for you.  If you immediately understand the error that you made, correct it.  If you do not see an error, the spelling and grammar checker may be at fault.  The Writing Studio consultants can help you sort out these and other writing problems.  We are a useful intermediary and non-judgmental audience, so use us.

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